Toute la mémoire du monde

3-8 May 2007

The International Short Film Festival Oberhausen is the longest running short film festival in the world. The festival, now in its 53rd year, can be characterised by its constant questioning of how it should operate and what short film is or can be. The festival has a long association with radical and pioneering movements stemming back to its early involvement with New German Cinema, which was founded with the “Oberhausen Manifesto” signed at the festival in 1962.

The major asset of the festival now lies in its often brilliant and certainly unique thematic strand that is laced through the entire festival with up to ten individual programs of work exploring anything from the origin of the pop video to the ramifications of the fall of the Berlin wall. Kinomuseum, this year’s program, sought to reflect back on the festival and critique cultural institutions in order to explore ways of engaging with critical work and especially artists’ film and video’s relationship to the cinema and the museum.

Like any good festival, Oberhausen offers such a wealth of work to discover and explore that it is impossible to take in its entirety. For the sake of disclosure I wasn’t able to catch that much of the main competition’s programs because I wanted to concentrate on the wealth of thematic programs and retrospectives. So I’ll start with an overview of my sampling, before my discussion of this year’s thematic program, which I caught in its entirety.

Mujin rettó

In the video library where films missed in the cinema can be caught up on, I watched the new film by Amit Dutta, an accomplished Indian experimental filmmaker whose new film Kramasha, together with his previous film Kshy, Tra, Ghya (2004), testifies to his remarkable visual vocabulary and his deft mixture of poetic narration and dreamlike imagery. In a more manic register were the films of Kanai Katsu, a Japanese filmmaker whose exuberant films were shown in a retrospective dedicated to him. I saw his first two films including the phenomenal Mujin rettó (The Desert Archipelago, 1969), which follows the travails of an anonymous fugitive. The film opens with the bandit surrounded by nuns determined to punish him for an unknown crime, a punishment that transforms from a sadistic beating into an orgasmic love scene. After he manages to escape he sprouts a child (perhaps impregnated by the nun?) from his back which rapidly grows into a man and begins to ridicule him. The film was described by Katsai as a “black dream” and simultaneously evokes the spirit of Jean Cocteau while foreshadowing David Cronenberg, Shinya Tsukamoto and even Matthew Barney’s art world opus, the Cremaster cycle. His second film Good-Bye (1971) was the first Japanese film made in Korea after the war and mixes a self-reflective narrative with verité-style street scenes to explore the connections between the two countries. The film’s narrative progressively disintegrates as the director and his paranoia take over the film.

Other program highlights included a perceptive new film by American filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt, I Just Wanted to Be Somebody. The film is a found footage portrait of Anita Bryant, an anti-gay campaigner whose righteous protests paradoxically helped to unify people in opposition, leading to the formation of the Gay Liberation Movement. Pitched as a letter to her memory, the film ambiguously and sympathetically explores a woman trapped in her prejudice as society changes around her.

Absurdity presented itself in various ways including a self-reflective staging of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody in a conceptual video from Singaporean artist Ho Tzu Nyen. Cast as a court case, The Bohemian Rhapsody Project is populated by a range of aspiring performers who emotively recite lines largely oblivious to their context. Similarly unknowing was Coffee, Ayse Erkmen’s very funny video where the artist is lazily read her fortune in coffee grounds by a charismatic but hopeless fortune-teller.

Belgian artist Vincent Meessen’s videos sit somewhere between documentary and performance, largely revolving around public interventions. He won the festival’s main prize last year and two new works presented this year including The Intruder, where the artist, dressed head to toe in a cotton costume, wanders the busy streets of Ouagadougou in Burkino Faso, attracting comments from bystanders, and A Broken Rule, which captures the slow alignment of a series of mobile signs to create the phrase “a broken rule is a sight to see”.

To coincide with the 30th year of Oberhausen’s International Children’s and Youth Film Competition the festival mounted a special thematic program called Don’t Look Back! – Children, Childhood and Cinema, which looked at the way childhood is represented in cinema, exploring themes of education, responsibility and creativity. The films in the program included the Russian Vecaks par 10utem (10 Minutes Older, Herz Frank, 1978), which secretly observes the entranced, bored and scared faces of children watching a play, as well as Christoph Giradet and Matthias Müller’s found-footage deconstruction of Hitchcock’s oppressive mothers in Why Don’t You Love Me? (Phoenix Tapes #4) (1999). Other works range from the unintentionally hilarious American educational film Towards Emotional Maturity (1954), aimed to morally educate teenagers, to the recent video Masha (Dana Goldberg, Israel, 2005) where a teenage boy is confronted by a sexually confident woman.

Kinomuseum

Every year Oberhausen asks a curator to develop ten programs exploring a particular aspect of short film (which they define very broadly). This year’s strand, Kinomusuem, was curated by London-based Ian White of the Whitechapel Gallery. The program set out to explore artists’ film and video as work that can be defined by its critical relation to both the cinema and museum, both of which traditionally fail to accommodate it. Ian divided the ten programs in half and invited two curators (Achim Borchardt-Hume and Emily Pethik) and three artists (AA Bronson, Mary Kelly and Mark Lecky) to develop programs as if they were individual rooms within the projects’ “imaginary museum”. Each series of programs ran in parallel with Ian’s in the morning and a guest-curated program in the evening.

Appropriately the series open with “guided tours” of the museum that set up the expansive terms of the series from the very beginning. They included a meticulously observed study of the closure of London’s Pathology Museum (Untitled, Megan Fraser, 2007), an intervention into Tate Modern (A Short Video About Tate Modern by Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, 2003-05) and Georges Franju’s classic Hôtel des Invalids (1952), a subversive study of the Military Museum in Paris run by war veterans.

Following the Right Hand of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca

The first guest-curated program, presented by Achim Borchardt-Hume, featured a specially conceived project by the Belgium artist Pierre Bismuth, called Following the Right Hand of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. The work consists of an abstract line-drawing generated by tracing the hand movements as the titles suggests. The drawing was projected on a 35mm loop and accompanied by the soundtrack of Casablanca in order to question the cinema experience and duration. Casablanca became the perfect mirror for the film festival, made up as it is of an international group all stuck together in a small town half trapped and half on holiday.

An early example of cinema’s capacity to house or extend the museum was The American Wing (1935) produced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The film documented the New York museum’s historical displays in order to show them around the country. This was shown with two works that questioned the idea of the object. Seth Price’s Digital Video Effects: “Editions” (2006) was made when the artist re-appropriated his own work that had previously been sold in the commercial gallery circuit to explore the idea of intellectual and artistic property in relation to commercial ownership. The program concluded with London-based artist Emma Hart’s Skin Film 3 (2006) that is literally made from sticking the artist’s skin to clear 16mm film, which in turn poses distinct problems to museums as it naturally disintegrates and therefore cannot really be owned.

The acclaimed artist Mary Kelly presented Fall Out, a program that explored the idea of trauma and catastrophe with work from three distinct time periods. In order to present a space to digest the works, each was shown in a separate screen in the cinema meaning the audience had to physically move between them. The program started with Disaster (Sherry Millner and Ernie Larsen, 1976) which is seen as the first American situationist film. The two-screen super-8 film combines a study of countercultural lifestyle with material from Hollywood disaster movies. After this you had a choice of which film to see but I went for Fast Trip, Long Drop (Gregg Bordowitz, 1993) a shattering video on the AIDS crisis in America in the ‘80s which utilises various televisual forms from home movie to mock talk show. Not a matter of but when (The Speculative Archive, 2006) is a video monologue and the last work I saw. Made in Syria on the verge of the current upheaval in the Middle East, the video is a series of addresses to camera by Syrian actor Rami Farah that attempts to capture the uncertainty of that time. After the audience finally settled, an impromptu discussion was mounting, giving a much-needed space to talk about what we’d seen and experienced and how it related to our present moment and situation.

The Screening Room program was presented in two parts with very different artists, who both reflected on cinema’s ability to explore mortality and the body. American artist Morgan Fisher preceded a showing of his rarely-seen film Screening Room (1968) with a talk describing the film’s special characteristics. The film must be remade each time it is shown in a new cinema, yet he claimed it is always the same film despite these other “states”. The film essentially is a single continuous POV shot filmed walking from the street into the exact cinema where it will be shown. The film’s key moment comes at the end when the cameraman has reached the auditorium and turns the camera onto the white cinema screen, which merges the representation of the cinema with the reality in the auditorium. This was paralleled with two works by performance artist and video pioneer Marina Abramović (Cleaning the Mirror I & II, 1975). Made while on a residency in Oxford, each video involves the skeletons used to teach anatomy which she viscerally interacts with to create disquieting meditations on mortality.

CINEMA-in-the-ROUND – Katz

CINEMA-in-the-ROUND was a humorous and expansive lecture / performance by British artist Mark Lecky. The talk attempted to get to the bottom of what intrigues Mark about the moving image, particularly when media exceeds its conditions; when an image becomes a sculpture. The talk was irreverently illustrated with slides and clips including the paintings of Philip Guston, a video of an amputee, an absurdly luscious film by Gilbert and George, an orgy-like music video with the sound off, Honda’s pristine rip-off of Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s video work, an episode in The Simpsons when Homer gains a third dimension, and Felix the Cat, and ended brilliantly with Hollis Frampton’s structuralist classic Lemon (1969).

Starting appropriately late at night, Sex Work: The Museum as Brothel; Art House as Porn House, looked at the pornographic in artists’ work and the way artists have appropriated its distribution strategies that museums struggle to accommodate. Curated by AA Bronson, the program featured Mansfield 1962 (William E. Jones, 2006), a re-working of an instructional film made by the Ohio police department to instruct people on how to run covert operation to arrest “sexual deviants”. The film presents the material both as a document of a social underground and an indictment of police oppression. The other standout video was American artist Lawrence Weiner’s A Bit of Matter and a Little Bit More (1976), where a staged orgy is presented and dissected through a range of formal devices and rhetorical statements on the soundtrack typical of the artists other work with instructions,

The Museum’s place in society was also looked at through the prism of monuments. A stature of Lenin is miraculously resurrected by subtly reversing original documentary material in Once in the XX Century (Deimantas Narkavičus, 2004) and an imaginary conversation between statues in a Belgium Square is voiced by three young newcomers to Brussels from the Phillipines, Rwanda and Morocco. The place of the gallery in relation to the outside world is brilliantly dissected in David Lamalas’ transformative A Study of the Relationships Between Inner and Outer Space (1969). The film explores the structures surrounding the artist’s exhibition at the Camden Arts Centre in London, moving from the specifications of the gallery to the city’s population and finally, in a series of interviews, people’s relationship to the cosmos as the filming accidentally coincided with the moon landing.

The final guest-curated program was Hall of Mirrors. Curated by Emily Pethick, it explored the idea of reflection as a mode of criticality. Conceptual artist Dan Graham’s Audience/Performer/Mirror (1977) is a video document of a pioneering performance where the artist stands between the audience and a mirrored wall and narrates his and the audience’s every action to create condense action and description. The program finished with a recent work by Emily Wardill, Basking in what feels like “an ocean of grace”, I soon realise that I’m not looking at it but rather I AM it, recognising myself (2006) which creates a similarly complex string of relations, here between two spaces, a deserted nightclub and a focus group centre, both of which are walled with reflective mirrors. Accompanied by a meticulous soundtrack that reverses itself halfway through, the film is an echo chamber reflection on ideas of representation, psychology and the sublime.

The program ended with a suitably grand finale. Stepping back to look at the artificial construction of history, the last program moved from the very funny Art Herstory (Hermine Freed, 1974), which inserts the artist into famous paintings to generate an off-hand critique of male-dominated art, to Alain Resnais’ Toute la mémoire du monde (1956), a monumental study of the archiving processes of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Made the year after his Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog), it’s a chilling companion. At once inspiring and futile, the film expresses the utopian and doomed nature of museums and their profound responsibility as archives of the world.

International Short Film Festival Oberhausen website: http://www.kurzfilmtage.de

About The Author

George Clark is a writer, curator and artist. He currently works on touring programs of artists’ film and video at the Independent Cinema Office.